Modern crime writing is guilty of various misdemeanours. One is the creation of male detectives who bear a remarkable similarity to each other.
Denise Mina is a writer who bucks the trend. Born in East Kilbride in 1966, she lived an itinerant childhood. Her days spent studying law at Glasgow University were a kind of apprenticeship for her writing life.
When her first novel, Garnethill, was published in 1998 she abandoned a PhD at Strathclyde University and became a full-time author. From early on, her work has undermined stereotypes of character and narrative. Maureen O’Donnell, the protagonist in the Garnethill trilogy, is an ex-psychiatric patient. When we first meet Paddy Meehan in Field of Blood she is a plucky copy-girl turned detective working for a Glasgow-based newspaper in the 1980s. The Dear Green Place has been Mina’s novelistic territory for most of her writing life and she has a nuanced approach to its many shades of seediness.
A versatile writer, she last year made a radio documentary about Henry Summers, a Leith man who was found dead in his flat three years after his demise. She has also written plays and comics, including a graphic novel adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Since 2009, Mina has written five books about police detective Alex Morrow, including End of The Wasp Season and Gods and Beasts. Her latest novel is a departure: a thrillerish noir that draws on the tradition of true crime. The Long Drop is about the serial killer Peter Manuel, the third-last person to be hanged in Scotland. In 1957 he murdered the family of businessman William Watt. The novel follows two branches of this remarkable story. The first concerns a meeting between Watt and Manuel on the evening of Monday 2 December 1957. The two men drink and talk through the night. As they move from bar to bar Manuel’s crime illuminates Glasgow’s dark and corrupt body politic. The second branch of the story follows the murderer’s 1958 trial, in which Manuel fires his lawyer and conducts his own defence.
Nick Major met Denise Mina in her house in Glasgow. She lives high up on the edge of Kelvingrove Park. From her front steps you can watch the north and east of the city going about its business. When he arrived, Mina’s door was wide open to let in the crisp winter air. She was wearing a dark pink dress that matched her character, which is good-humoured yet serious, intelligent yet unpretentious.
Her most noticeable feature is her grey hair, which spikes up at all angles. The interview took place in her large light-filled kitchen. Over the course of the two hours, Mina threw mints into her mouth, clipped her nails, and once stood up to demonstrate what ‘actual violence looks like’. She talked with speed and spark, with a kind of frank wit, and swore with easy abandon.
Scottish Review of Books: How long have you lived here?
How old is the house?
It’s Victorian. It was built in 1868. The whole circus was designed by a guy called Charles Wilson. It’s supposed to be a circle within a circle but a section wasn’t built because the builders ripped him off.
You spent some of your childhood in Glasgow but you moved around a lot. Why was that?
My dad worked as an engineer for a North Sea oil company. The oil companies were based all over the place and they were mostly American. So we lived in Paris, Holland, London, Bergen and Invergordon. It was a circuit of oil engineers who would travel around and it was often the same people, so it was like a gypsy camp. And they were all working class – even the Americans were blue collar guys – and they’d become engineers through apprenticeships.
Those companies were awash with money, and they treated us all as if we were upper middle class. So we were sent to really expensive private schools, but we were from a working-class background. It was a fascinating social experiment and a real social disruption. I was at a school in Paris and Princess Michael of Kent did the prize giving, then I was at a school in Barlanark that looked like Fort Apache.
And you lived in Paris in the 1970s?
Yeah. Paris in the 1970s was amazing and very strange. You had to go to the American Hospital if anything happened and one day we met Jackie Onassis in a lift. She was going up to visit [her husband, Aristotle] Onassis, who’d had a heart attack.
Have you read a book called The Beautiful Fall? It sounds terrible, but it’s mesmerising. It’s about Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent in Paris in the 1970s and what the politics of the city was like then. It’s beautifully written.
We lived in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, where Marine Le Pen lives now. There was a wall across the street from our house and on the other side the Vietnam peace talks were taking place, so we used to see the cavalcades of limos going past. It felt like we were at the centre of everything.
It must have felt like you were living in history.
It really did. There were abandoned machine-gun posts from the war all around us, and there were monuments to members of the resistance who had been shot at street corners. The neighbour downstairs still had Louis Quinze furniture in her house so no-one in the area trusted her because they knew she must have collaborated. It just felt like all of history was happening in Paris at that time.
Were you reading anything then?
No, I couldn’t read until I was about ten. I just couldn’t get the hang of it, but I spoke three languages. I was always in the remedial class because my teachers thought I had learning difficulties.
When I was about seventeen I went on an Ibiza Uncovered-style holiday with two girls. I was so vanilla; I thought we were going to see churches in Corfu. They just got drunk and picked up guys all the time.
But one of them had brought One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Master and Margherita with her.
She went to nightclubs and I sat and read those books, and I got really addicted to reading. It was the sort of addiction where you think someone is telling you something. I think if you learn to read that way you own it and it’s a real, secret joy.
Why did you choose to study law at university?
I left school at sixteen and worked, then I thought I should go to university because you can earn more money per hour and that would leave more time for reading. All my family are lawyers and they’re very religious and good living; it was felt that you should do something useful. So I went to university thinking I was going to start the revolution, and I’ll tell you now, Glasgow University Law School is not where you’re going to start the revolution. At that time it was mostly solicitors’ kids who were just going to work for their dad and they were into corporate law. It was very middle class and quite posh.
When did writing usurp your studies?
I was doing a PhD at Strathclyde and I kept thinking, what I really want to be is a writer. I was coming up to 30 and I had to commit to one thing: I either had to be an unsuccessful writer or an academic. So I wrote the start of Garnethill, sent it off to an agent and pretended I had written the whole thing. The agent wanted to see the rest so I had to write it. I could justify my writing though because I thought I was telling stories nobody had told before and that I was doing something socially useful. I think narrative is a better way to disseminate information and narratives than writing a PhD thesis, which not many people read, and nobody enjoys. I knew if I took my ideas and put them in a mainstream narrative form then a lot of people would have access to it and read it for fun.
I used to read a lot of really right-wing American crime fiction where the police would find a huge amount of evidence then just shoot the criminal at the end and that was justice. I was appalled at myself for enjoying them so much. I wanted to write something about a woman who had agency. Women in crime fiction at that time never had agency; they were always being saved. If they were a rape victim they always got a better boyfriend at the end, as if it was the wrong man that was the problem. People who had been sexually abused were cast aside as husks, and nobody in mental hospitals still had pals or relationships or networks, and detectives were never worried about their mum, do you know what I mean?
There are better stories than that. So I dropped out after Garnethill was published. I told my supervisor and he thought it was brilliant. At Strathclyde Law School we were all really interested in narratives of crime and justice. We had a film club and were interested in crime fiction.
So it wasn’t such a different path to take?
No, it felt like a continuation. Strathclyde was very socio-legal, which is quite an unusual discipline. Glasgow was very black letter law. At Strathclyde we were really looking at the impact of law and how law is interpreted. So my PhD was about how courts interpret mental health categories and how language use changes once you get into the court, and how the world of law co-opts the language of mental health and uses it for its own purposes. So, for example, women are much more likely to be labelled mentally ill and treated with compassion because they are not a physical threat. But I argued myself into a Derridean locked room. I thought, if language isn’t fixed, then why are you writing a thesis? You might as well write fiction. Language is always read through the prism of the reader; I think Foucault said, ‘a book is different every time somebody reads it’. I don’t believe in all that original intention stuff, that the writer can correct everybody. Writing a book is an interaction. It’s not as though you write a book and everybody is allowed access to your inner workings. I think that’s very much a crime fiction interpretation of reading, but poetry reflects the interactivity of the process of as well. Literary fiction strives for that original intention.
A lot of your characters are preoccupied, in and out of the courtroom, with shaping the story of their lives. In The Long Drop you write that Watt ‘doesn’t want justice but an ending to this story’. Can stories deliver greater truths than the courts?
Well, it’s an interesting point. I watch court cases a lot. In The Long Drop there’s a section about Laurence Dowdall [Watt’s lawyer] and how he presents a story. My cousin is a lawyer and I often go and see him. He always says to me, ‘I tell stories as well’. There are conventions within that form of storytelling: the way you present the story, what you leave out and what you highlight. It’s in a different forum though and you have to make it emotionless. I think people misunderstand the purpose of the courts. The courts are not really about the truth. The reason it’s ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘not proven’ is because you want a clean answer. You don’t want a nuanced answer, which is what’s so frustrating.
There’s no room for doubt.
No, the courts need a blunt conclusion. Last year, somebody did lots of research on contemporaneous references to Christ, and whether or not he existed. They said there are absolutely no references. Christianity was bumbling along as an underground movement and all of a sudden Christ appears in the story as a central character and Christianity takes off. The story doesn’t work without a central character. That tells you something about the power of a narrative to convey messages and profound truths. If you talk about somebody dying people want to know how old the person was. They want the narrative to have a good curve. They want you to say the person was 95 and they were delighted to go. They want that narrative to work for them. People want death to make sense. I think we understand everything through narrative.
To return to your first book. When it was first published, did you think of yourself as a crime writer?
God no. In fact, I got married in 2004 and I found our wedding certificate the other day and I had written ‘researcher’. I couldn’t even imagine myself as a writer. It’s a big thing to be, and I think most of the crime writers of my generation didn’t realise that if your first book was a crime novel then you would always be a crime writer, but if your first book was a literary novel you could move into crime writing, but you wouldn’t be a crime writer. Crime writing wasn’t a thing then. There weren’t loads of us.
There were no festivals of crime writing.
No. For me, being a crime writer meant writing accessible narratives that would be fun. Patricia Highsmith said, ‘that’s the promise of crime writing, that you are going to enjoy it’. You’re not going to be elevated; you’re not going to be able to boast that you have read something; you’re not going to learn about history; but you’re going to enjoy it and if you don’t you shouldn’t read it. I think some crime writers don’t like that subordinate status, but I love it. I think it’s really precious. People come to you for comfort, and no one feels excluded. No one reads a crime novel and says, I didn’t understand that. I’d love to know how many people don’t finish crime novels and how many people don’t finish literary novels. I think more people don’t finish crime novels.
Because they know what they want. At the same time, it’s like pop music. It’s such a broad church. Some of it’s really gory, some of it’s really tense, some of it’s very mild, and some of it is old ladies finding stuff out. People know the general narrative but there are a lot of variations within the form. I think it would be a shame if crime writing was taken terribly seriously because that sense of entitlement readers bring to it is really precious.
Why are there so many crime writers now?
There was a period about ten years ago when I used to say, if you chucked a brick in Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday you would hit someone writing a crime novel. I think Ian Rankin sold so well that people suddenly thought it was something you could actually do. I think some people who would have written brilliant literary novels before are now writing brilliant crime novels. Books that wouldn’t have been marketed as crime novels before are now being marketed as crime novels.
There is a demographic difference between people who write crime novels and those who write literary novels. Crime novelists are often more working class, and you don’t have to have so much affirmation. If you wrote Ulysses and gave it to your pal, they’d say, ‘that’s rubbish’. But anyone can read a crime novel and say if it works or not. Publishers are also looking out for the next Ian Rankin. As a result of his success publishers are also more likely to take a punt on a Scottish crime writer. And as a result amazing people are writing, people who wouldn’t have done otherwise. There are an enormous number of us. Even now, people say to me, I’m going to write a crime novel, when at another time you know they would’ve been writing poetry.
I’ve talked to a few dedicated readers of crime fiction. One thing they agree on is that there is too much gratuitous violence in modern crime fiction. Do you agree?
I think they [the books] are getting more gory. I think a lot of writers and readers are getting hardened to that. There is a spark of danger or revulsion that writers are trying to evoke in a reader. Writers are often very embarrassed about it, but there is something about prompting a sense of moral turpitude in the reader that we are trying to evoke, and that builds up; it’s cumulative. So now, you wouldn’t kill a sex worker, you would kill fifteen sex workers.
But that’s the attraction of crime fiction. People in war zones don’t read about murders. I think it’s to do with living in a very safe society with a rapidly declining crime rate. That’s what makes violence [in books] interesting. Do you know a Japanese director called Takeshi Kitano? He’s basically the Bruce Forsyth of Japan but he also makes art house movies. His movies are incredibly violent, but he doesn’t really show violence, he shows the aftermath. He also shows that violence is a dance; it’s not a real thing.
My friend was down on the Great Western Road and there was a fight in a pub that broke out onto the street; everybody was fighting. He said, ‘these fat drunk guys were trying to kick each other but they were so fat and drunk they couldn’t get their legs above their knees.’ That’s what actual violence looks like. If you see actual violence, it’s not the violence you read in books, the violence of serial killers.
That was one of the reasons I wanted to write The Long Drop. I was interested in the serial killer narrative. Patricia Cornwell said, ‘serial killers are monsters who are not like us. They are the mysterious Other who commit these appalling acts and they have a framework of reference that’s their own.’ But that’s not what serial killers are like. They are basically arseholes with knives. They are really not impressive human beings.
Peter Manuel comes across as pitiable man.
They are all like that, but the narrative is never told in that way. It is always told as though they want to get caught and they know exactly what they’re doing. I have a friend who’s a psychologist in the prison service, and he said, ‘psychopaths are the most pathetic people you’ll ever meet’. So why are we telling ourselves this same story over and over?
There is a fantastic Israeli sociologist called Eva Illouz and she writes about romantic narratives. People who read romance novels read five a week, but it’s the same story every time. Why do women read narratives of romance over and over again? Why are people reinforcing these narratives that are unrealistic?
It’s the same with the serial killer narrative. Serial killers are not just damaged chaotic people among us that we have failed to treat or catch. They don’t just come out of nowhere. The reiteration of these narratives tells you a lot about how people want to read the world.
Why did you choose to write about Peter Manuel?
I didn’t really choose him. Somebody asked me to write a play about him; it was on at Oran Mor. In the play Watt doesn’t know anything about what’s going on. It [the play] sold out and people were really interested in him, but pensioners who remembered Manuel came up to me afterwards and said, ‘you’ve got the story wrong’. They said Watt knew something about the murders. I met someone who was at a party with Watt – this was long after Manuel had been hanged – and they said Watt was incredibly drunk, and that there was a police car outside watching him all the time. So the echoes went on for people. These people knew him; they used to go to his bakery because the scones were slightly larger – this was just after rationing had ended.
I kept going to watch the play with the director, Graeme Eatough. At the end of the run I said to him, ‘there’s a scene missing from this’. The story doesn’t make any sense if you assume Watt is completely innocent. In truth, they met the night after their bender and Watt gave Manuel 150 quid. That never came out of the court case; a load of things people said in court don’t make sense. So there are all these lost stories and all those pensioners wanted to put themselves in the story. If you talk to anyone in Glasgow about Peter Manuel they want to tell you what they know.
It’s a dark collective memory for a city to have.
Did you know that almost every major serial killer in Britain has lived in Glasgow at some point? Fred West moved here, Peter Tobin was from here, Ian Brady grew up here. I was desperate for Denis Neilson to have come to Glasgow but he never did.
What is it about Glasgow that attracts psychopaths?
I think it’s known as a really chaotic place.
In the novel Glasgow feels like a completely different city. It’s shadier and grimier than it is now.
In the book there is a map of Glasgow from 1958 and you do need it. While I was writing the novel I used to go down to the centre and try to imagine where everything used to be in the city. I was standing on the south side one day and I could feel the whole old city coming up around me. There’s a brilliant picture in one of the books I used for research which shows the smog over the city. My father-in-law lived here in 1970 and he remembered when the smoke-free fuel ban was introduced. It was brought in on the south side of the city first. He could drive along the south side of the river and see a wall of smoke on the north.
It must have been useful to set a noir in such a murky place.
When I was young Glasgow was black and funereal and very foreboding. It felt like the ultimate setting for a noir novel and people spoke like they were in a film noir; they used lots of language from the movies. So people here call each other ‘guy’. They say things like, ‘check that guy’ and ‘doll’ and ‘janitor’. People used to talk like James Cagney. In Glasgow they call that talking out the side of your mouth, which means pretending you’re a hard man. That narrative really infused Glaswegian culture.
Reading the novel is like entering a strange Americanised Glasgow. It’s interesting to know there’s a real truth to that.
And Watt really did keep saying, ‘I turned detective’. He obviously saw himself in a detective narrative. He thought he would resolve it all and drive off in a yellow car with a better-looking woman. At that time the only working-class people in films in Britain were servants and stupid, whereas in America working-class guys were heroes. Those kind of representations were revolutionary. Apart from that in Glasgow all you had was No Mean City, which was about incest, raping your neighbours, and being in a knife fight. And nobody wanted to be that guy.
Why did you write this story of the past using the present tense?
I was reading a book called The Trouble with Tippers to my kid. It was an aid to learning to read. It is written very simply and it’s incredibly funny. It goes something like, ‘the tipper is not tipping, the architect is angry, the workmen are having their tea, that hole should not be there, oh no she’s fallen in.’ It’s all told in the present tense and that gives it a real immediacy and there is a great rhythm to the language. Also, in The Long Drop there are time slips. Some things are in the past and some are in the further past, and I wanted to avoid being clumsy. But The Trouble with Tippers was the main reason for the style.
How does your writing routine work with having children?
Sometimes I’ll stay up all night, sometimes I’ll get up before they go to school. I love touring because I can work on tour, which most people can’t. But I can work anywhere as long as I’ve got music on and a laptop. If I don’t have a laptop, I’ll use a notepad.
Do you do any general research, on forensic techniques or police procedures, for example?
I think that’s a really good way to waste a lot of time. Actually, what you need to do is write your book, work out what questions you need answered, then go and ask somebody. If you are being very disciplined then you make sure it’s a yes or no answer. I don’t think people read crime novels to find out about new forensic techniques. For the Alex Morrow books I did very little research, and I’ve got one or two things wrong. But people always write and tell you…for this book I did loads of research. I read the transcripts of the trial. If you’re writing something historical, a great thing to do is read the newspapers from that time. They give you things like the kind of fags people smoked. But you can waste a lot of time.
You made a documentary on Edgar Allen Poe. I remember being told at school that he was the founding father of detective fiction.
I don’t think Poe was the originator of the crime novel. I think all art starts as craft and then a middle-class person does it and everyone thinks something new has been invented. Have you read Henry Mayhew’s London Poor? It’s first-person interviews with Victorian people. Street sellers used to write true crime stories that were happening, print them and sell them.
Yeah, they were precursors of the penny dreadful. They had [titles] like ‘Ghastly Murder in Lambeth, Beautiful Girl Found Dead’. If there weren’t enough murders they would make them up. They always followed the same very familiar form. They would tell the story, then they would write another one about the murderer being caught, then write a sorrowful lamentation, which was a long first-person poem written by the murderer saying how sorry he was. That’s where Murder Ballads come from. That whole history has been whitewashed over.
What makes a good detective in a novel?
I think they have to be relatable but extraordinary. They have to have some sort of superpower, and apart from that it’s all to play for. It’s such a broad audience. True crime’s all men, and crime writing all women, and who the audience are is what determines what’s relatable. For some reason the thriller end of the market where the men are superheroes but can’t fly really appeals to a certain age group of men. But people read for different reasons. Sometimes they are reading to find out who they are or because they hate their family and they are on holiday with them and want to numb themselves.
When Manuel’s sentence is read out you describe the crowds lining the streets. They can’t wait for him to be hanged. They’re celebrating because they know that once he’s dead their ‘troubles will be over’. Perhaps people read crime fiction with a similar hope.
Humans have an innate, childlike belief that the world is fair and they form stories to reinforce that belief in a just world. Actually, the world is not fair. But it is very satisfying to have that belief reinforced. I love it when a bad person comes a cropper. Imagine if [Donald] Trump shot himself; you’d feel great, wouldn’t you?
Recently, you turned detective yourself. You made a radio documentary about Henry Summers, a Leith man who lay in his flat for three years after he died. His life seemed to remain a mystery. Has anything new come to light?
Lots of people got in touch after the documentary. We now have photos of him. He worked at the same shipyard [in Leith] for years. He was a right laugh. He was just an introverted guy and never talked about his personal business. The yard where he worked got in touch and said he was a really skilled joiner. One guy who got in touch said he wasn’t introverted. This guy used to see him at the bus station with his fishing tackle. He’d ask him where he was going, and Henry would say, ‘wherever the first bus takes me’. He had a fantastic retirement but he didn’t drink, and that was a way you used to archive your life then, by going into pubs. There’s no mystery. He had a great life, apart from the last moment.
Perhaps he didn’t want to be remembered.
To take it back to what we were talking about before: we think of things in narrative terms. You think someone’s death tells you something about their life. But it’s just random. Whenever someone tries to commit suicide people always try to extrapolate back as though it means anything about them. Maybe they were just really down. The world’s full of people who tried to commit suicide, failed, then went on and did other things. It’s not a summation of his life that he died that way. It doesn’t mean he was always lonely. If anything, it means he was good at admin.